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Tuesday, 7 August 2001
Page: 29325


FRAN BAILEY (5:27 PM) —The primary aim of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001 is to continue this government's commitment to developing a repatriation system that is fairer and more consistent in acknowledging those who served our country. Whether this includes acknowledging the ordeal of POWs, providing $6 million to extend the residential care development scheme for another year, further development of the quality use of medicines program or allocating $6.4 million to build a major new war memorial in London commemorating the substantial role played by Australians in two world wars, this legislation once again demonstrates this government's willingness to work closely and cooperatively with the Australian veterans community.

It is pleasing to see that this legislation comes after the successful passage of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000, which was passed last December. This legislation gave dependants and former dependants of Vietnam veterans access to much needed counselling services and psychiatric diagnosis. Also as a result of this legislation more than 2,600 veterans who saw service in South-East Asia during the period 1955 to 1975 will now have access to full repatriation benefits from 1 January 2001, and about 50 merchant seamen who during the Vietnam War served under naval command on board HMAS Jeparit have become eligible for repatriation benefits.

Given this current legislation and in particular its acknowledgment of those many veterans left behind, it is perhaps timely to reflect on this week in history and our wartime heritage. The date of 6 August 1915 saw the beginning of the battle for Lone Pine. Australia suffered more than 2,200 casualties, and seven Victoria Crosses were awarded for actions at Lone Pine. The date of 7 August 1915 saw the Australian charge at the Nek, Gallipoli. The charge by men of the 10th and 8th Australian Light Horse was a disaster. At the end of the day, 375 of the 600 attackers were casualties, including 234 dead. The Australian official historian later wrote, `The flower of the youth of Victoria and Western Australia fell in that attempt.'

The date of 8 August 1916 witnessed the beginning of the battle for Moquet Farm, France. Moquet Farm, near Pozieres, was the focus of nine separate attacks by Australian troops between 8 August and 3 September 1916. Some 11,000 Australians were killed or wounded in the fighting. On 9 August 1942, HMAS Canberra was sunk after being attacked by Japanese ships off Savo Island. Canberra was among a fleet of United States and Australian warships supporting the United States marine landings on Guadalcanal.

These are just some of the events that occurred during our wartime past and, as I said, in this week particularly it is timely to reflect on what happened to Australians in years past. They do illustrate why we must always as a nation afford respect to and care for those veterans who have served and those loved ones whom they left behind. I have some 14 RSL sub-branches in my electorate and a veteran community that includes veterans who served in World War II, Korea, Indonesia, Malaya and Vietnam. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, the member for Bradfield, Dr Brendan Nelson, recently joined me in my electorate to open the new commemorative gates at the Light Horse Memorial Park in Seymour. The opening was accompanied by a parade of the light horse down the main street. Such recognition of our wartime past demonstrated to me that people will never forget the sacrifices made by those who served and will continue to recognise their service.

The importance of recognising this service must always be properly and respectfully acknowledged. Veterans' entitlements must also make provision for war widows and ensure that those widows whose partners have died for their country are not discriminated against because of this. As at June 2000 there were 107,953 war widow and widower pension recipients. Under this legislation, discrimination against remarried war widows will end with the resumption of the war widow's pensions to war widows who remarried before 29 May 1984. This will bring justice to widows who lost their partners in wartime service and who chose to remarry. It will restore the entitlements of some 3,000 Australian war widows who remarried before 1984 and had their pensions cancelled. The previous Labor government only continued payments to war widows who married after 29 May 1984. To address this discrimination, the government has allocated some $86.8 million over the next four years. The restoration of these benefits will take effect from January 2002.

This legislation will also acknowledge the contribution of our British, Commonwealth and Allied veterans who fought alongside Australians during World War II. The Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme will be extended to cover certain Allied veterans and mariners aged over 70 with World War II qualifying service and who meet the 10-year residency requirement. The initiative covers World War II veterans with qualifying service from Australia's Commonwealth allies, including Britain, Canada and New Zealand, as well as those from Belgium, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the United States and the former Yugoslavia. This initiative will involve the expenditure of $24 million over the next four years.

The Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme was founded more than 80 years ago to provide prescription medicines to veterans of World War I. People eligible for the RPBS now generally pay a maximum of $3.50 for prescribed medicines covered by the scheme. The RPBS provides a wider range of items than the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Access to the RPBS means veterans and war widows and widowers can obtain a wider range of drugs and medicinal products than is available to the general community. Based on clinical need and a request from their local medical officers, veterans and war widows and widowers can obtain items not listed in the schedule of pharmaceutical benefits. Currently, there are about 350,000 veterans with access to the RPBS using on average 34 to 35 concessional prescriptions a year.

This legislation also brings veterans' benefits into line with those introduced into social security law. From 1 July 2001 early withdrawals from superannuation funds by persons aged 55 or over will be exempt from the income and assets tests. The government will not include in the income test for social security pensions any money withdrawn from superannuation assets by this age group.

I must add that it was also pleasing to see in the recent budget that the government is acknowledging those people held prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, and their surviving widows. These people will receive an ex gratia payment of $25,000 from the federal government. Of the 22,000 Australians taken prisoner by the Japanese, 8,031—or some 36 per cent—died. The payment will be made to some 2,630 former POWs and 6,600 widows or widowers, as well as an estimated 370 former civilian internees. On behalf of all veterans and their families whom I represent, I commend this bill to the House.